What is Sickle Cell Trait?

A hidden danger could be lurking for athletes who don't know their genes. During intensive exertion, athletes with the gene for sickle cell trait (SCT) are at risk for what is called exertional sickling. When this occurs, red blood cells change from their normal round shape to crescent shaped, causing a log jam in the blood vessels. Blood flow can then be disrupted.

Over the past three decades, at least 15 athletes, including two in 2010, collapsed after intense exercise and died due to complications from SCT, according to the National Athletic Trainers' Association.

Having treated professional athletes since the days of the Houston Oilers, Dr. Muntz is passionate about educating the athletic community about SCT. He's also quick to say that with proper precautions, SCT isn't a barrier to safe athletic participation. Dr. Muntz points to NBA and NFL players with the trait who perform at exceptional levels of stress and competition.

Testing for SCT

Individuals with SCT inherit one gene for sickle hemoglobin and one for normal hemoglobin. This is different than sickle cell disease in which an individual inherits two sickle genes.

One in 12 African Americans in the United States carries SCT. The gene is rare, but not unheard of in Caucasians.  

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